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Another One Bites the Dust? Moldova’s anti-oligarchic spring and the future challenges for the EU foreign policy

In June 2019, the Republic of Moldova was shaken by an unprecedented constitutional and political crisis. Following the February 2019 parliamentary elections, an unlikely coalition of pro-Russian (PCRM, the Socialist Party) and pro-European political forces (ACUM, in English “NOW”, formed by the Party for Action and Solidarity and the Party for Justice and Truth) emerged to oust the PDM (Democratic Party) and its leader Vlad Plahotniuc, the country’s oligarch without an official post.

The Constitutional Court of Moldova, which had acquired the nickname of “Plahotniuc’s pocket court”, declared the new governing coalition illegitimate in a highly disputed decision. And so, the small eastern European country found itself with two governments, accusing one another of usurping state power. In a rare act of international consensus in the region, the EU and Russia recognised the new government and took a stance against the incumbent regime, which shortly thereafter decided to end the constitutional stand-off by giving up power. Plahotniuc’s retreat paved the way for a peaceful change of government with a coalition of PSRM and ACUM in charge.

In these changed political scope conditions, EU foreign policy faces new challenges. First, the Moldovan people have high hopes that the pro-European political forces will cleanse the corrupt system. The ambitious, anti-corruption driven reform agenda of the ACUM requires a great deal of endurance. If the EU is serious about its alleged objective of being a transformative power in Moldova, its support is essential. Second, Russia’s influence on the pro-Russian forces, represented by the strongest group in the Moldovan Parliament, has proven to be decisive for ending the oligarchic reign of Plahotniuc. Russia has yet again demonstrated its political assertiveness in the country.

The convergence of interests between the EU and Russia on the one hand, and the ACUM and PCRM on the other hand, seems to conjure the beginning of a new era of de-geopoliticisation. Yet, diametrically opposed domestic and foreign policy objectives indicate that it is nothing more than a momentary manifestation of a common denominator – the ousting of an unpopular local dictator.

The New Political Status Quo in Moldova – another one bites the dust?

The unprecedented coalition across geopolitical lines was united by the single purpose of getting rid of the mafia-like structures of Plahotniuc, who managed to capture the main state institutions over the last ten years. The PSRM has proposed a moratorium on geopolitical and ideological issues, sacrificed key ministerial positions in favor of ACUM and assured its full support for its “de-oligarchisation” course. The new government is slowly but surely gaining control over the state apparatus by replacing the corrupt senior leadership in crucial state institutions. For the time being, the initial euphoria keeps the community of interests together. In the long run, however, the facade of unity will most likely tumble, leading to early elections.

The ambitious de-oligarchisation agenda, including democratic, justice, anti-corruption and banking system reforms, is a long-term objective and will certainly take more than one full-term government to push through. Despite the defeat of the “capo di tutti i capi” (boss of the bosses) Moldova remains a captured state. Many state employees who regularly found themselves on Plahotniuc’s payroll continue their activity in various functions. The unsuccessful reform efforts of the previous allegedly pro-European political forces in the country, notably the “Alliance for European Integration” (2009 – 2016) demonstrated that corruption is endemic and cannot be solved by merely getting rid of either one person or one group of people.

It is highly doubtful whether the two parties’ diametrically opposed foreign policy objectives will not bust the objective of fighting corruption even before serious measures start taking at least some effect. While ACUM’s foreign policy objectives are clearly EU-oriented, the PSRM acts as Russia’s proxy. This puts the success of ACUM’s “de-oligarchization” agenda in question.

The EU and Russia – a partnership of convenience rather than the herald of an era of “de-geopolitication”

Plahotniuc lost all of Brussels’s goodwill long ago amid constant violations of the rule of law, imitations of reforms and the banking fraud scandal of late 2014. At the same time, Moscow was no longer able to control the unpredictable and personal interests-oriented oligarch. The revelations regarding Plahotniuc’s involvement in the ‘Russian laundromat’ scheme was the last in a series of events that antagonized Russia. However, beyond the common interest of seeing the unpleasant local dictator go, one searches in vain for indicators of a convergence of overarching interests between the EU and Russia in the region.

Russia once again has made it crystal clear that it regards Moldova as part of its sphere of influence. Dmitry Kozak, deputy prime minister of Russia, was the main broker of the unprecedented coalition in Chișinău. His name is inextricably bound to the “Kozak Memorandum” of 2003 which foresaw a final settlement between Moldova and the Russian-controlled breakaway region of Transnistria through the instalment of an asymmetric federal state. As a consequence, Russia’s influence in the country would have dramatically increased. Due to lacking popular support, the plan was ultimately dropped. Finally, the PSRM faces serious allegations violating domestic laws by receiving external party financing by Russia. The new coalition perfectly fits Russia’s power play, which seeks to maximize its influence in Moldova, as long as the PSRM has the upper hand. Therefore, there can be no talk of a new era of ‘de-geopoliticization’–‘back to geopolitical business’ is most likely.

Future Challenges for EU Foreign Policy

Time will tell whether the new executive will be successful in cleansing the corrupt system and willing to invest political capital to follow the path of reforms, or whether it will fail just like the previous reform-minded governments that paved Plahotniuc’s way to power. The EU’s foreign policy in Moldova has to deal with a new pro-European force taking on an extremely challenging agenda and a more assertive Russia that has managed to install a reliable and politically strong proxy. The EU’s future foreign policy towards Moldova will be crucial for the country’s trajectory.

During the last few years, the Union has engaged in politically insensitive, sector-specific cooperation. This approach resulted from a stagnation of reforms and disadvantageous geopolitical scope conditions resulting from Russia’s aggressive maneuvering in Ukraine. Functional cooperation carries the promise of maintaining a geopolitical balance, achieving stronger sectoral links, and thus having an actual impact on people’s daily lives.

Yet, the EU must step up its game and follow a two-track approach if it wants to keep being a key player in the country and reinvigorate the EU-inspired transformation process. Besides relying on sector-specific cooperation, the EU needs to finally go the whole nine yards and come up with a clearly structured and politically sustainable strategy, take a clearer stance regarding Moldova’s membership perspective, as well as define what it is ready to offer and what it expects in advance. Otherwise the power vacuum created by Plahotniuc’s retreat will quickly be filled either by another oligarch’s narrower or Russia’s broader vested interests. And another pro-European force will bite the dust.


Mihai Corman is a PhD researcher at Ghent University.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.